Two Republican members of Congress have once again introduced legislation in the House and Senate to make English the official language of the United States. Though similar legislation has failed in the past, current talk of immigration reform in Washington means the push may have a better chance than ever before. And changes have already been made at the local level, where three Maryland counties recently declared English the official language of the county government. Some two dozen states currently have official English language laws as well.
It's unlikely most of this would have been possible without the efforts of ProEnglish, a tiny Virginia-based advocacy group which has been pushing for the official designation since 1994. In the past year, the group has ramped up their campaign—reaching out through robocalls, direct mail, social media and lobbying on the Hill, especially to Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who introduced the official English bills in the House and Senate.
ProEnglish wants all immigrants to be required to learn English before they can become citizens. The group's beliefs go beyond immigration: their members also oppose bilingual education, and argue employers should have the right to instate English on-the-job rules.
"We don't want to be pigeonholed as another immigration group," Robert Vandervoort, the group's executive director, tells Whispers. Vandervoort also doesn't want to be branded as an anti-immigrant or racist, charges they've faced a number of times before. The ProEnglish website includes a page called "Supporting English Does Not Mean Racist" and Vandervoort insists the group's goal is to "unite" Americans around a "common language," not divide them.
But some groups don't believe the rhetoric. The left-leaning Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, for one, has drawn attention to Vandervoort's past ties to a Chicago offshoot of the white nationalist group American Renaissance.
Vandervoort says he attended some meetings in Chicago with "a variety of conservative groups" years ago and "didn't keep track of all the meetings and who attended."
But IREHR says it goes beyond Chicago, noting that Vandervoort also came under fire last year for a panel he put on at CPAC featuring a member of VDARE, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an "anti-immigration hate website." This year, ProEnglish had a booth at the conservative political conference but Vandervoort did not host a panel.
"This is not just a guy who wants to move to the suburbs to avoid black people. He has a set of beliefs that are a step beyond that," says Leonard Zeskind, president of IREHR and the author of "Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream."
"That's of concern to us because the advocacy he does on immigration is inherently tainted by that fact," he said.
Vandervoort says he doesn't let the "smear campaigns" of left-leaning groups get to him, and instead focuses on uniting America around a single language.
"The message [we want to] send is: we have 300 different languages spoken in this country," he says. "It's how you bring different people together, in one common language."